It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over: The Pseudo-Endlessness of ‘Destiny’Bungie
For as long as they’ve ostensibly given us the ability to go anywhere and do anything, video games have slapped our wrists or tugged our reins to prevent us from accessing areas we aren’t allowed to see. In some cases, the limitations are temporary, an expected part of the plot progression: closed bridges or locked doors that won’t open until we complete a certain story mission or collect the right key. In others, though, the limitations are technical, necessary compromises imposed by a lack of processing power. Designers disguise meager draw distances by hiding horizons in fog or by erecting barriers composed of bulletproof barrels or hedges that are too high to hurdle. To a first-time player, a crate that a super-soldier can’t scratch is a glaring, disbelief-inducing inconsistency. To a video-game veteran, it’s an accepted convention, the way game worlds work. We don’t notice these crutches until a determined developer finds a way to walk without them.
Each new hardware generation loosens the restrictions on what designers can do, enabling well-crafted games to compete more closely with our imaginations. One game that enlisted a new system’s power to leave a mark on my mind was Smuggler’s Run, a Playstation 2 launch title (later ported to GameCube) from 2000 that not only advertised environments “over 100 square miles in size” but delivered on the promise that you could drive to any spot you could see. To 13-year-old me, weaned on worlds with invisible walls and preset paths, this was a powerful pitch. I remember playing the game in front of an older family member, pointing to a distant point on the screen and then demonstrating (more to my delight than to hers) that yes, you really could go there.1 We’re used to settling for games that are smaller in scope than they sound on the back of the box, but we’re always on the lookout for the few that make the sandbox bigger.
Blockbuster budgets discourage experimentation, but Destiny, the multi-platform sales monster unleashed last week on reviewers and the game-playing public alike, had the pedigree to potentially be among the year’s most memorable, boundary-banishing games. Developed by Bungie (makers of Halo), published by Activision (owners of the lucrative, rapidly reproducing Call of Duty franchise), and arriving in stores on a wave of hype fanned by a high-concept premise, a public beta, and Bungie’s since-clarified comments about $500 million development and marketing costs, Destiny boasts all the hallmarks of an aspiring console/online-subscription-service seller. The back of its box does nothing to discourage the player’s anticipation. “Destiny is a next generation first person shooter, with rich cinematic storytelling set in huge worlds to explore,” the copy proclaims.
One out of three ain’t bad. Destiny’s self-description gets the genre right, but beyond that, it promises more than its current incarnation can offer.
In Destiny, you play as a Guardian who’s awakened from a nap of indeterminate length at the start of the game, and your task is to protect the Traveler, a planetoid-like deus ex machina who appeared from space in our present and helped the human race prosper in unspecified ways. During Destiny’s events, which take place in our solar system a few centuries in the future, the Traveler is temporarily dead or deactivated, the victim of a “Darkness” that pursued it for eons and finally overtook it, much to the detriment of its human allies. The game explains all of this via a one-minute voice-over that supplies most of its scant backstory.2
Save for the end of a single scene, Destiny offers no hint of the Joseph Kosinski–directed, Zeppelin-soundtracked trailer’s self-consciously corny tone. The Guardian is a zero in the personality department, which wouldn’t be a problem if the other characters’ contributions didn’t drag the whole cast into negative territory. The most prominent role goes to Ghost, a hovering robot companion created by the Traveler and voiced by Peter Dinklage. This seems like inspired casting, in light of Dinklage’s talents and what one assumes must be a near-universal crossover rate between Destiny players and Game of Thrones watchers, but through some alchemical combination of vocal processing, poor direction, apathy, and uninspired writing, Dinklage’s delivery sounds as natural as Stephen Hawking’s speech synthesizer. It’s hard to believe Bungie could have forgotten the no. 1 rule for a compelling computer sidekick — Don’t make the robot robotic — after creating one of the most memorable examples.
Perhaps recalling that the original Halo benefited from its surprise reveal of the Flood after establishing the Covenant as an adversary, Bungie doubles the alien species count in Destiny, enlisting the Fallen, the Hive, the Vex, and the Cabal as bump-mapped bad guys. But the story might have been more comprehensible with fewer kinds of cannon fodder. As it is, you’ll have trouble keeping track of which species you’re fighting and why, since the aliens’ reasons for trying to kill you are unclear and some (or all) of them are also at war with each other. Plot and character aren’t the strong suits of most shooters, but Destiny’s are almost as flimsy (and much less fun) than what you’d find in a kitschy budget series like Earth Defense Force.
The plot’s failings are unfortunate, because there’s some good gameplay here. As a pure shooter, Destiny passes the “Wait, when did it get dark out?” test: Until you reach the end of the story, the hours evaporate quickly. Once I put down the low-impact pulse rifle and made the more precise scout rifle my main squeeze, the combat felt finely tuned. The rumble of a DualShock 4 gave each gun a convincing kick, and location-specific damage animations made the other end of the bullet-target interaction equally satisfying. At its core, which is too often buried beneath the narrative’s nonsense, it’s visceral, tactile, life-forgetting fun. That strength ameliorates its considerable sins.
“Next-generation” first-person shooter is a slightly more controversial claim. Destiny often feels like Halo with a fresh coat of paint, down to the powerful melee attack, the sound the shield makes while recharging, the aliens’ fondness for weapons that fire colorful energy bolts slow enough to sidestep, and the protagonist’s ability to perform an exaggerated double-jump, which plays like the Spartan jetpack from Halo: Reach. Destiny’s vehicles, like Halo’s, feel floaty in just the right way, and Bungie still puts them in the player’s path infrequently enough that each occurrence seems special. The orchestral score lends the same stately atmosphere to the menu screen, and the story relies on a similar pairing of powerful fighter and companion AI. It’s not surprising that a shooter designed by the studio responsible for Halo would have Halo-like elements. Nor is there any reason for Bungie to abandon mechanics that work so well. However, the warmed-over controls and cosmetic elements put pressure on other aspects of the experience to differentiate Destiny from a hypothetical Halo 5.
The game’s strongest claim to originality and innovation rests on its integration of RPG/MMO elements and always-online play. Most shooters stick you with a stock character who stays the same throughout the game, but Destiny lets you pick one of three upgradeable character classes straight out of the RPG playbook, which you’ll use to cut through an unending stream of adversaries with D&D-esque names like “Stealth Vandal” and “Cursed Thrall” (not to mention standards like “Knight,” “Acolyte,” and “Ogre”). Every enemy has a visible health bar that gets emptier with each impact — not just a nod to an RPG trope, but a vital form of feedback, since many of Destiny’s bosses are walking wars of attrition who won’t succumb without a protracted fight (and who, disappointingly, don’t adjust their tactics as the engagement goes against them). Each kill or assist yields a small payout in experience points, providing a constant sense of progression toward the soft cap at level 20 (beyond which only the spoils of war, rather than the slaughter itself, can make a player more powerful).
Over the course of the game you’ll make frequent trips to the Tower, an Earth-based hub from which every excursion sets out — each of them, frustratingly, accompanied by lengthy loading times, which could be a symptom of early strain on the game’s robust servers — to offload items, receive rewards, accept bounties, and purchase equipment from NPCs who stand at eternal attention as player-characters come and go. Character customization is the game’s hidden hook, less flashy than the fighting but integral to Bungie’s plan to keep you connected for the long haul. Every weapon and armor component can be upgraded and/or replaced by gear with superior stats (although the game skimps on details about the finer points of this process). For the first 15 to 20 hours, the quest to obtain the optimal loadout, both for combat purposes and for bragging rights, is no less addictive in Destiny than it has been for decades in countless other games. It helps that the protagonist’s appearance from the campaign carries over into the Crucible, Destiny’s head-to-head multiplayer mode, and that experience earned in the Crucible also applies to the campaign.
As you wander around Destiny’s four playable planets — Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars — you’ll encounter pockets of other players who are exploring the same territory. Their presence reminds you that you’re not the only person playing Destiny instead of doing something productive with the day, but there’s little potential for interaction. Tenuously united for a few moments, you might fire off a few rounds at the same foes, but these encounters amount to no more than players passing in the night, as if stuck in a more violent version of Journey. A default “friends only” menu setting makes it difficult to communicate and party up with other players to complete the main story missions, which seems like an obvious oversight (and, fortunately, an easy fix). Destiny is more fun with company, if only because it helps to have someone to groan with as the story falls painfully flat. Coupled with the Crucible’s modest 12-player max, though, the empty spaces everywhere but the Tower make Destiny’s universe seem underpopulated, more massively marketed than massively multiplayer.
The level design doesn’t make matters better. For all of Bungie’s attempts to build on a Mass Effect–ian scale, Destiny’s glossy environments feel fairly confined. The sweeping spacescapes, which are worth stepping away from the closest massacre to admire, convey a remarkable sense of distance and size. Ultimately, though, they’re just window dressing, because Destiny doesn’t share the go-anywhere ethos of Smuggler’s Run. If we could copyedit the back of the box, we might amend it to say “Huge worlds to explore, as long as you run in the right direction.” Stray from the beaten path, and the exploration ends after a fatal four seconds.
To be fair, Smuggler’s Run wasn’t set on the Moon. Then again, we’re two PlayStations past where we were in 2000, in a world where the right code can create an infinite universe. Destiny didn’t have to model the whole Moon to feel acceptably epic, but it could have set the handful of missions on each planet in areas that didn’t require so much backtracking across familiar terrain, and it could have made those missions rely less heavily on recycled objectives. (Dinklage would have had half as many lines if not for the many ways he was forced to say, “Keep these enemies off me while I slowly decrypt this door.”) In its lack of lore, small cast of characters, and constrained scope, Destiny is the anti-Elder Scrolls. The sweet spot lies on a middle path between the two extremes.
I played much of Destiny with a friend who sent me this sad message upon beating the game’s boilerplate final boss:
Bungie might be heartened by his uncertainty, because Destiny desperately wants to convince its audience that it never actually ends. “There is so much more, Guardian,” an NPC3 intones in the final cut scene, seconds before adding, “All ends are beginnings. Our fight is far from over.” At this point, most games — even those with persistent post-plot worlds — would take you to the credits, but Destiny doesn’t do that. If you want to know which Bungie employee supplied additional prop art, or hear “Hope for the Future,” Paul McCartney’s incongruous, bombastic theme, you’ll have to click on an unobtrusive credits icon that appears on the menu after the final mission, or find the anthem on YouTube.4 Destiny has too much at stake in your continued participation to risk sending a signal that the odyssey is over.
Bungie’s hope for the future is that character customization, the competence of the Crucible, and a steady stream of updates and events (some of which sound addictive enough to earn a surgeon general’s warning) will make the faithful shell out for future pay-to-play content. That blueprint will appeal to some (and maybe even to many), but once I finished the story and ground my Guardian to level 20, my desire to dive back in wilted away. With each upgrade, the Guardian’s attributes improve and lower-level enemies capitulate more quickly, but the gameplay stays the same. What motivation is there to farm for loot that would allow me to replay Destiny’s monotonous cavern crawls at a higher difficulty level, other than the desire to obtain even more exalted items that would permit me to repeat the process at a higher level still? The results of that frustrating process might earn me envious looks at the Tower, but consider the opportunity cost.
Online games are always evolving, so early impressions are only a snapshot. For now, a snapshot of Destiny reveals a good-looking game that’s part shooter with derivative level design, part RPG with a paper-thin plot and a missing instruction manual, and part MMO that doesn’t play particularly well with others. For all of that, it’s fun for at least as long as most games that hit more of their marks but aren’t as ambitious, and the union of its disparate parts holds the seeds of something special. Destiny has the feel of a franchise that won’t flower fully until after the early adopters have moved on — or until a more synthesized sequel arrives. If last week’s sell-in is any indication, Bungie will have every opportunity to remove any bulletproof barrels between where Destiny was on day one and where we want it to be.